Monday, January 9, 2012

Studio Visit: Earl Staley

by Robert Boyd

Earl Staley in his studio

Earl Staley has a studio above Art Supply on Main, and I spent an afternoon there shortly before Christmas. I first encountered Staley's work in 1985 at the Fresh Paint show. I moved away from Houston a few years later, and Staley also moved away, and I didn't hear much about him until recently, when I stumbled across his enjoyable but infrequently-updated blog, Professor Art.

Staley's story is interesting and, while unique, it says quite a lot to me about Houston and the art scene here. Staley moved to Houston in the 60s and taught at Rice. This was before the Menil contingent moved en masse from St. Thomas to Rice (a key event in the art history of Houston). At the time, he was having friction with his boss at Rice, so when Menil uprooted her art department at St. Thomas and took them to Rice (bringing along William Camfield, who stayed at Rice for decades and taught me a couple of very interesting classes), there was a vacuum at St. Thomas which Staley moved in to fill. This was in 1969.

Shortly after this, his career blossomed. He was getting regular solo shows at various galleries in Houston and in New York. His work had been noticed by Marcia Tucker, who included it in her influential exhibit "Bad" Painting at the New Museum in 1978,  alongside work by Neil Jenney, William Copley and Joan Brown, as well as including his work in the American Pavilion at the 1984 Venice Biennale. that same year, he had a retrospective that started at the CAMH and went to the the New Museum. But, to quote Bessie Smith:
Once I lived the life of a millionaire,
Spent all my money, I just did not care.
Took all my friends out for a good time,
Bought bootleg whiskey, champagne and wine.

Then I began to fall so low,
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go.

It's mighty strange, without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you down and out
I mean when you down and out ["Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out," Jimmy Cox]

He had a bad divorce, he made what in retrospect was an unwise decision to move to Santa Fe, and his art style fell out of favor. (His greatest champion, Marcia Tucker, died in 2006.) So now he's back in Houston, no gallery (although he has an upcoming watercolor show at PG Contemporary), teaching at Lonestar Community College (the local community college systems are a life raft for many a Houston artist), living on the East Side on the weekends and in Tomball near the school during the week, and spending long hours in Midtown at this beautiful studio.

This is the quintessential studio that you could live in. It's roomy, filled with natural light, and downright homey. Staley painted the interiors bright colors (he never shies away from bright colors), so the joint has a festive feel. And it has permitted him to be prolific, especially with watercolors.

some of the many watercolors Staley has been producing in his new space

Another current practice involves recycling old work. I don't mean this in a conceptual sense of, say, revisiting old subject matter. He is literally taking old paintings, cutting them up, and pasting them back together, then painting on top of them. He has a very unprecious view of his older work. Here's what he wrote on his blog about this practice:

In 1981 before the Professor went to Rome he painted this picture. It is called The Awakening. It has been rolled up for many years. When he painted it he thought he was the new Picasso. His ego was rather large. He knows better now. The picture has been rolled up for years. He has recycled it. [Professor Art, November 2, 2011]

Earl Staley, History Lesson, acrylic collage, 2010

The question then is, are these pieces of old paintings formal elements in the new paintings, or is there some sense of autobiography in their use? I think the title of History Lesson suggests the latter.

Earl Staley, Recuerdos, acrylic collage, 2011

The autobiographical aspect is even more pronounced in Recuerdos (Spanish for "memories"). He typically paints over the old pieces of canvas to a certain extent, but it is notable that he didn't paint over the image of the house in the bottom center of Recuerdos.

Earl Staley, Recuerdos detail, acrylic collage, 2011

This was Staley's home/studio in the Heights. It is a memory that he apparently does not wish to obliterate with paint. On the other hand, it's still hanging in his studio--he could change his mind and cover it with one of his dot storms. For the moment, however, it still seems important to keep this particular recuerdo intact.

Staley's collage work is quite different from other, older work.

Earl Staley, Big Rock Candy Mountain, acrylic, 2009

But his work over all is not exactly self-similar. It's a little hard to reconcile Big Rock Candy Mountain, with its unnaturally intense colors, with the more naturalistic colors of Entrance to the basin , Big Bend, N.P.  Texas from 10 years earlier.

Earl Staley, Entrance to the basin , Big Bend, N.P.  Texas, acrylic, 2009

But the use of bright neon colors is more characteristic and has been since at least the mid-70s. He's no Giorgio Mirandi. It may be that this combination of extremely strong colors, his pointillism (which seems like a relatively recent addition to his basket of techniques--at least it wasn't present in his 70s/early 80s paintings), and his use of collaged canvases leads to paintings that struggle to resolve themselves. But even so, we can observe that here is an artist in his 70s who is still evolving. How often does that happen?



  1. This is a story that had to be told. No artist bio is complete until maybe three doctoral dissertations a century after his/her death. But this blog entry is -in my opinion- a much needed start to put some Art History reflections and scholar perspective in Prof. Staley career as a visual artist. Certainly he is no Giorgio Morandi, what is quite good because he has had the courage to be himself following the -at times underground- current of inspiration and experiment. Yes, Prof. Staley is an artist in his 70´s still evolving and enjoying life and creativity. Is his time to paint. We can write history thirty or forty years from now.

  2. my second art teacher was Earl Staley. My first art teacher will be unnamed. She famously painted tole strawberries.

    I was pretty damned inspired by Mr. Staley, circa 1971, at UST.

  3. Niccolo Machiavelli said, "History is written by the victors". Well, art history is written by the art dealers. It is a fallacy to accept what the standard texts pass off as important without examining the economics of the time in which the texts were published. One can make some pretty interesting observations sometimes by doing this. For example, think about the careers of several artists in New York during the Reagan administration, when market and banking deregulation began to blur the morality of capitalism.

    Oliver Stone makes a cagey assessment in his film, "Wall Street", simply by hanging some of these artists' work on the walls of the young protagonist's apartment. The art is simply an empty trophy, much like the blonde art consultant who moves in with the guy after he makes his first big score. It is all just flotsam that washes in with the tide of excess. "Greed is good" is the mantra of the villain, Gordon Gekko.

    A couple of years ago the art star of the moment, Julie Mehretu, who was once a Core Fellow at the MFAH, was commissioned by Goldman Sachs to do a painting for its new lobby. Mehretu was paid five million dollars. When asked if she had any compunction about accepting the commission during the meltdown of the global economy, Mehretu glibly answered that "the Medici were not nice either, and look what they did for art". I paraphrase here, but one can catch my drift. Somehow I doubt that Mehretu's work will hold up as well as that of Michelangelo.

    Earl Staley was instrumental in showing me that an artist's fire, once ignited by internal motivation and the irrepressible joy of activity, can never be extinguished by the mood of the moment as defined by the "art world", so very often just an echo of the fashion industry, tied to the trends of youth, fleeting, meaningless, and shallow.

    Enough of this. I'm going back to work in the studio now.

    Thanks, Earl.

  4. My contrast of Staley to Morandi was only in the sense that the two artists have very different (indeed, opposite) palettes. I did not mean to imply anything about their respective quality or value as artists. Sorry if there was any confusion.

  5. And to think this extremely diverse artist is living upstairs from my studio. Makes the whole building seem much more upbeat and important to the community. Not that it wasn't before Earl but he gives off great vibes.

    Karen Lastre

  6. In the late 80s Tomball College was very fortunate to have Professor Staley start their Art Department. What an adventure and prestige for the college. It was fun to have him stroll into my office and chat. Fond memories, Earl. You have touched so many lives with your talent. Continue to share!.....Sue Bell

  7. Robert....Thank you for your thoughtful comments regarding Earl and his career in and around the US Southwest. I was also one of the artists Marcia Tucker included in the 1975 Whitney Biennial along with Earl and other artists from all around the country. As I recall her curatorial vision for that Biennial was conditioned on no artists with NYC galleries. Given today's corporate, big apple youth driven art scene that show stands out as exceptional in the last 50 years. I moved to Houston and lived there for a few years in the heady days of the late 1970's up until the oil crash of the early 1980's and aids changed Houston's art world. A few galleries still exist from that era and a few artists but the list of our friends and artists who defined much of that history are now gone. Dick Wray and Luis Jimenez both had major career milestone shows at the CAM. There were the Lawndale shows under the leadership of James Surls. There was Hadler Rodriquez Gallery, Bill Graham's Gallery and others that I can see but not fully recall their names. There was the "Fresh Paint" show, the "50 Texas Artist Book", and others. Earl's journey through this exciting and tumultous time is one important story among the many artists, collectors, gallery owners and museum leaders. The complete story of contemporary art from Houston to Roswell to Albuquerque to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin, and San Antonio has yet to be written. It is a great story of people, places, ideas and grand follies and I miss it every day. Richard Thompson